Una Corbett ’20

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“‘Organize, Agitate, Educate’: Making Political Meaning of the American Women’s Suffrage Centennial”

The year 2020 marks 100 years since the passage of the 19th Amendment, which extended women’s suffrage across the country. My thesis, “‘Organize, Agitate, Educate’: Making Political Meaning of the American Women’s Suffrage Centennial,” explores the politicization of this anniversary.

Curators, historians, government officials, and activists have dedicated a ton of time and resources to planning a wave of celebrations, exhibits, research efforts, and public programs to commemorate and educate the public about the 19th Amendment’s significance. At the same time, 21st-century politics (both liberal and conservative) are riddled with references to the suffrage movement: to name only a few examples, women put “I Voted” stickers on Susan B. Anthony’s grave after voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016, women politians from Shirley Chisolm in 1968 to Democratic congresswomen inducted in 2018 have all worn white, the color of the suffrage movement, at key political moments, Women for Trump hosted a suffrage centennial event with Kellyanne Conway last year, and arguably the most prominent anti-abortion group in the country, the Susan B. Anthony List, claims the name of one of the founders of the suffrage movement.Yet even as suffrage history has become a political touchstone, there is also a growing recognition of the ways in which American suffragists actively worked to perpetuate racism, classism, and other forms of discrimination.

Given all these intricacies and contradictions, I was eager to explore the political power of the suffrage centennial in our current moment. I analyzed a wide array of centennial-related primary sources — government rhetoric, legislation, original interviews, museum exhibits, and photographs and ephemera from activist demonstrations– and put that analysis in conversation with feminist theory, social movement history, historical memory, and museum-studies scholarship. My thesis research took me from interviewing government officials at the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission in Washington, D.C. to visiting suffrage centennial museum exhibits at the New York and Massachusetts Historical Societies to delving into suffragists’ papers at the Schlesinger Library.

My thesis argues that references to suffrage history are inherently political, and that we so often evoke the suffrage movement because we’re heartened by the fact that a movement as messy, divided, and often inadequate as our own social movements today was able to create real change back in 1920. I believe the suffrage centennial moment has the power to shape how the American public views the relationship between gender, power, and citizenship in 2020 and beyond. We can glean inspiration from the ways the suffrage movement transformed the relationship between gender and citizenship, but it’s dangerous to romanticize and mythologize a social movement that was deeply flawed and exclusionary. I really valued getting to write a historical thesis that felt forward-looking — I would encourage Hist+Lit juniors brainstorming thesis topics right now to remember that history is happening as we speak, and some of the most exciting and original “historical” topics are very current!

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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